Combined efforts save lives in Salang avalanche
by Staff Sgt. Richard Williams
455th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
2/18/2010 - BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan -- Imagine minus 40 degree temperatures. Add 35 mph winds and waist deep snow.
Tack on an elevation of 11,500 feet and this is the frigid scene that greeted members of the 33rd Expeditionary Rescue Squadron Guardian Angel Team when they arrived to render assistance to survivors of multiple avalanches that occurred in Salang Pass, Afghanistan, Feb. 9, 2010.
U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Jonathan Grant, a 33rd ERQS pararescue team leader, said the initial notification of an avalanche in the area came around 12:30 a.m. The team began to streamline equipment and arrange transportation to render assistance to more than 1,500 people, most of whom were Afghans trapped in the snow.
"The initial reports we received on the area were pretty accurate," he said. "We were told that there were thousands of people trapped and multiple vehicles with people still inside had been pushed off the road."
Their equipment included extraction equipment and hypothermia kits to assist people who had been exposed to sub-zero temperatures, trapped in vehicles and in some cases buried in the snow for more than 12 hours.
The GA team loaded their equipment and personnel on U.S. Army CH-47 helicopters assigned to Task Force Knighthawk and started an approximately 30 minute flight to the avalanche site.
The team wasn't sure what they would find when their helicopters approached the scene. Sergeant Grant's team was on the first aircraft that arrived in an area with no defined landing zone; the pilots were going to have to clear one for themselves.
"The helicopter hit the ground; we were cleared so we grabbed our gear and began to secure our area and assess the situation," said Sergeant Grant, who's deployed from the Patrick AFB, Fla.
"It was a chaotic scene when we first got there," said Capt. Gabe Hensley, 33rd ERQS combat rescue officer. "There were frozen bodies lying on the road, vehicles were turned over, and it looked like someone had literally taken snow and pushed it into the vehicles.
That was an eerie feeling given the fact that we didn't see anyone moving. Once we got on the ground, we were greeted by a crowd of people coming out of the tunnel."
The first thought that ran through Sergeant Grant's mind as he saw the crowd was, "This is going to get crazy pretty quick."
The team began to organize a reverse triage process. Typically, in an evacuation situation, people with the most severe injuries are taken away first. The reverse process allowed the most healthy to clear the area and the team could focus on more serious injuries and freeing trapped individuals.
Captain Hensley's team stopped everyone, organized them, secured them and began loading them on the aircraft, said Tech. Sgt. Blain Morgan, 33rd EQRS pararescue team leader. "It was really amazing how smooth the organization was."
Sergeant Morgan added, "We had to ensure the safety of those people and the Tactical Air Control Party controller's and pararescuemen, and we began directing traffic so we could get those people out of there safely."
Once the initial rush of about 80 avalanche survivors was loaded onto helicopters and sent to Bagram, the team returned to the area to render more assistance.
Upon arrival, the team again set up a perimeter and secured the area. Staff Sgt. Greg Predmore and Airman 1st Class Eric Gray, 817th Expeditionary Air Support Operations Squadron TACP controllers, gained contact with air assets. The team organized individuals in a casualty collection point in one of the tunnels to keep them out of the elements and prepare them for evacuation, said Senior Master Sgt. Mike Ziegler, 33rd ERQS pararescue superintendent.
"We have had situations in the past where people have injured themselves trying to get on the aircraft and a helicopter with a moving tail rotor can be very dangerous," said Sergeant Ziegler.
Sergeant Ziegler added, "We don't really receive formal training on crowd control and in this situation we had a learning curve of about 15 seconds to decide how we were going to protect and reassure these people who are frantic and at the same time ensure we are safe and able to do our job."
"It was pretty difficult in the beginning," said Airman Gray, who is deployed from Aviano Air Base, Italy. "We had people all around us and we were trying to secure everything and maintain our radio antennas to contact the air assets and get the air traffic flowing to get the people out of there."
After organizing the landing area, Captain Hensley, deployed from Patrick AFB, Fla., broke his teams into small groups so they could begin to rescue trapped individuals.
"Once we saw one of the sites and did the initial survey of the area where the avalanche had pushed vehicles off the road, we grabbed the people who were right there, removed them and began assisting people who were trapped," said Sergeant Morgan.
Sergeant Ziegler explained the team descended 600 meters into a valley in waist deep snow with about 45 pounds of equipment on their backs to a vehicle resting place.
Once they made it to the base of the valley, Sergeant Morgan, also deployed from Patrick AFB, surveyed an area of land and created a landing zone for helicopters to drop off additional equipment, said Captain Hensley. "This was essential to their success, because it allowed them to use all of their equipment and not just what they had carried down."
The team began to dig with snow shovels and use heavy extraction equipment to cut through a metal bus framing to free as many people as possible. Sergeant Ziegler added that the team was literally digging tunnels through the vehicles and completing an on-scene triage to assess medical conditions of any survivors.
The evacuation worked as smoothly as possible with air traffic, said Sergeant Predmore. "We had helicopters waiting in line. As one moved out with survivors, we had another moving in to take its place and that allowed everyone else to focus on assisting people."
"I didn't have to worry about anything when I was on the ground," said Sergeant Morgan. "I had my weapon and I was ready to secure myself if I needed to, but the TACPs were in constant contact with aircraft in the air and the pilot's eyes on the area allowed me to focus on my job and that was to save lives."
Sergeant Morgan explained that the primary job of a TACP is kinetic in nature. They guide weapons to a target. On this mission, their primary objective was to get information from the air about any possible threats to mission success and coordinate the aircraft accomplishing the rescue effort. That capability was key to enable the PJ's to do their job.
With equipment and daylight exhausted, Captain Hensley and his team prepared to return to the airfield. They completed 12 flights in a seven hour period and assisted more than 300 people.
The key to mission success: training.
"We receive a variety of specialized training," said Sergeant Ziegler. The team is primarily made up of Florida natives who are used to sea level conditions and to go from there to an elevation of more than 11,000 feet in those conditions presented many different challenges.
"We are so specific yet so broad with the scope of our mission here," said Sergeant Morgan. "We have scuba gear here because we may perform a rescue in a river. We receive mountain rescue training and collapsed structure training because we are trained to rescue people no matter what the situation."
"This was an extremely dangerous mission," Captain Hensley said. "We found out that there were 36 avalanches in the area that day. The road was used for enemy activities regularly and there was potential for these elements to be mixed into the crowd of people. Additionally, we encountered some of the worst weather conditions imaginable. If we made it there, the helicopters may not be able to return and we may have to complete an overland movement to get in and out of the avalanche location. The team accepted the risk."
On this day, 10 pararescuemen, two Tactical Air Control Party Airmen and members of U.S Army Task Force Gladius, reaffirmed the PJ motto, "That others may live."